Where to start learning about anthropology?
December 4, 2008 4:37 PM   Subscribe

I would like to know more about anthropology, and have the ability to ask compelling questions about the subject. Where should I start?

I have never taken an anthropology course, but am interested in reading up, beyond previous AskMe questions tagged with anthropology. It's such a broad subject, I'm at a bit of a loss of where to start.

What should I read so that I can engage in conversation with my friends and colleagues, who have studied anthropology, are well versed, and beyond Anthro 101?
posted by Juniper Toast to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
In my Intro to Anthro class we read The Tangled Wing by Melvin Konner. It's a pretty engaging read, from what I recall.
posted by cucumberfresh at 4:53 PM on December 4, 2008

This week was Claude Lévi-Strauss's 100th birthday, so you should probably read The Raw and the Cooked at least.
posted by zadcat at 4:57 PM on December 4, 2008

For starters, are you looking to know more about ancient peoples or more contemporary subjects (i.e. What time and place)?

If you break down the idea of what makes a culture, you may be able to narrow down your interests--or at least break it all into manageable chunks: religion, government, language, kinship, environment, norms/customs, and ethnicity.

Here are a couple of indices to explore:
posted by bonobo at 5:16 PM on December 4, 2008

I like Marvin Harris for a solid introduction to Material Anthropology Theory. (Which basically asserts that cultures develope their traits because those traits are advantageous in acquiring "stuff" - food, shelter, etc).

Claude Lévi-Strauss's brand of Anthropology is Structural.

I Really Really Love the Cultural Theory of Risk. (members of a culture agree on what is dangerous. Not all cultures agree on what is dangerous. Mary Douglas.)

Once you've gotten through some of these, feel free to MeMail me.

Or feel free to let us know if there is something more specific within anthropology that you're interested in. Maybe you are super curious about Archaeology? Or solving crime with Anthropology? Because there are people who do that. Linguistics is also a branch of Anthropology.
posted by bilabial at 5:23 PM on December 4, 2008

To learn more about the field of anthropology and the evolution of anthropological theory, I like Visions of Culture which is a compendium of essays by anthropologists or sociologists from the beginning of anthro to the present. It's a little dense, but getting to know names like Mead, Evans-Pritchard, Geertz, Douglas, and Bourdieu might make your conversations a little deeper.

If you want to read an excellent ethnography, try The Women of Deh Koh by Erika Friedl. It's a vision of what ethnography can be.

For a mix of history and anthropology you could try Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz. It's pretty engrossing, and there have been a host of spin-off books on spices, tea, coffee, etc so if you like this type of book there are more out there.

Also, there's nothing wrong with picking up the latest issue of the journal American Anthropologist and reading through some articles. I doubt most of them would be over your head and it will expose you to many topics. I love just leafing through and reading random articles- it's hard to get bored with anthro! And don't forget anthropology has many delicious subfields like archaeology, linguistics, physical anthropology, ethnography, visual anthropology with journals that correspond :)
posted by Mouse Army at 5:31 PM on December 4, 2008

Do you live near a university? Keep an eye out for guest lectures and special events related to anthropology. It could be a great way to meet like-minded individuals and maybe spend some time chatting with a professor.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 5:31 PM on December 4, 2008

If you're more into the physical anthropology and maybe into the paleontological side of things, by all means read Stephen J. Gould. When I studied anthropology in college, his work was the reason I bolted to the reserve reading room in the library.
posted by plinth at 5:32 PM on December 4, 2008

I've got just about finished my degree in Anthropology, so I can probably answer many of the questions you have. The best way to start, I suppose, is to identify what areas you're interested in. As you mentioned, Anthro is a very broad ranging subject. There are four main fields into which it's divided: Cultural, Biological (Physical), Linguistics, and Archaeology. I like to think of the field as the study of all things that answer the question: "What does it mean to be a human being?". Cultural looks at what we do, Physical who we are, Linguistics how we think and communicate, and Archeology what we've done. Here's a list of some of the better books I've read over the past four years.

Some good books that would serve as an introduction:
- Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy
  A great look at the use of archaeology in a more modern context
- What It Means To Be 98% Chimpanzee by Jonathan Marks
  Exploring our relationship to our genes and our animal relatives
- A History of Anthropological Theory by Paul A. Erickson and Liam D. Murphy
  Used this in my intro to theory class. It's a great overview to the types of theories used in anthropological research.
- Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist by Hortense Powdermaker
  A good start for cultural anthropology
- Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict
  Also good start to learning about cultural anthropology
-Humans: An Introduction to Four-Field Anthropology by Alice Kehoe
  I haven't read this one, but it's on the course list for one of my favorite professor's intro to anthro class.

A little on the heavier side, but solid texts for anthro classes:
- Research Methods in Anthropology by H. Russell Bernard
  Used this in my intro to methods class, everything you'd ever want to know about anthropological methods and more.
- Anthropological Theory by R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms
  A look at many different theories from which to approach anthropological work, using source texts.

Some classic ethnographies:
- The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People by E. Evans Pritchard
- The Sexual Life of Savages by Bronislaw Malinowski
- Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead

More "modern" Ethnographies:
- They Lie, We Lie: Getting on with Anthropology by Peter Metcalf
  One of my favorites. A lot of this book isn't so much an ethnography, but an attempt to reconcile and move past postmodern theory with anthropology.
- Whats Love Got to Do with It? by Denise Brennan
- Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World by Theodore Bestor
posted by swashedbuckles at 5:34 PM on December 4, 2008 [8 favorites]

One really good way to approach this sort of thing -- "how do I start learning about field X?" -- is to take a look at a few syllabi from introductory classes in that subject. Googling "introductory anthropology syllabus," for example, turns up a bunch; fiddling around with the search terms will no doubt produce even better results.

Then you take a look at five or ten of the syllabi, and see what texts, films, and other materials they are using. A quick trip to your library, a request or two at Netflix, and you are in business. This isn't a substitute for actually taking a class in something, but it works really well for getting a quick overview of a field that is so new to you that you don't even know where to start, or what questions to ask.
posted by Forktine at 5:37 PM on December 4, 2008

Forktine's recommendations are excellent, especially bearing in mind that in anthro, like in many disciplines but especially because its practicioners tend to be more radical, theories and models of peoples/cultures get outdated really quickly (or found to be racist, shoddy, or subject to other kinds of interdisciplinary critiques) and are subsumed into other larger (or smaller, ie Anna Tsing's Friction) theories.

I would also check out blogs, like culture matters or savage minds, for a taste of what anthropologists are doing today.
posted by yonation at 6:20 PM on December 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Bernard text on Methods. My methods professor listed it as optional but said as we were reviewing the syllabus, "These are listed as optional. We just do that to be polite. You need them. You must read these. So even though they are called optional, they are not optional."
posted by bilabial at 6:27 PM on December 4, 2008

I enjoyed The Third Chimpanzee, reading it prompted me to study anthropology for a year.
posted by kisch mokusch at 6:45 PM on December 4, 2008

It all depends on what you're actually interested in. Are you interested more in "scientific" studies of culture or in more humanistic approaches? The origins of mankind or investigations into how, say, modern-day Malaysians in a particular neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur deal with state-directed urban redevelopment?

Anthropology is an extraordinarily-fragmented field--even those who nominally subscribe to the "four-field" approach (cultural, physical, archaeological, linguistic) generally have very little to do with their colleagues in other fields. Other anthropologists have rejected that approach entirely. See, for instance, this recent (if somewhat flawed) account of the split between biological and social anthropology in Britain, or Dan Segal's and Sylvia Yanagisako's Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle for a (highly critical) collection of essays on the four fields in America. It is not uncommon for anthropologists within a single department to regard the theoretical approaches of their colleagues as entirely baseless.

Broadly, one group of anthropologists see anthropology as a science and wish to proceed in studying human culture (not to mention physiology, evolution, etc.) as a biological phenomenon. Laying aside physical anthropologists and many prehistoric archaeologists (who are actually pretty close to biologists or paleontologists in their scientific outlook), this camp will often include anthropologists who wish to study cultural and social phenomena as evolutionary phenomena, although there is some distinction between anthropological work in this vein and sociobiology or evolutionary psychology.

The other group of anthropologists is leery of the whole idea of approaching culture and society "scientifically," or even of the notion that "cultures" as bounded wholes actually exist. Anthropologists in this camp take a more critical and humanistic approach; their work often ends up looking more like history or even literary studies than economics or political science. Their object of study is less likely to be some exotic or isolated tribe and more likely to be some politically-charged, highly contemporary topic (e.g. religion and the state in Turkey, the divide between biomedical and psychotherapeutic approaches to psychiatric practice, the rise of alarmist media and political narratives about Latino immigrants, and so forth). They are also, as you may have noticed in my post, much more likely to throw up protective "scare quotes" around problematic "theoretical constructs."

Some anthropologists do work across these lines, but in my experience most tend to gravitate more to one camp. Which sounds more like the sort of thing that would interest you?

As far as reading suggestions go, Forktine's is excellent, as are Mouse Army's and yonation's. I don't know most of the introductory texts mentioned by swashbuckles, but I would say that I'd only I'd only read Mead, Benedict, Malinowski, or Evans-Pritchard if you're interested in the history of anthropology...as "science" these have been largely superseded and--Mead and Benedict in particular--heavily criticized. Likewise, I wouldn't start with Marvin Harris (interesting and easy to read but often very, very wrong) or Lévi-Strauss (very, very interesting but not at all easy to read and also often wrong).

You could also try picking up some readers or introductory texts for specific topics that interest you.

Brian Morris's Anthropological Studies of Religion, for instance, is very good and still (I think) fairly current--if skewed towards the British end of the discipline.)

If you're interested in anthropological work on politics, Africa, economics, international development, or the environment, Mefimail me and I'll send you some suggestions.
posted by col_pogo at 6:48 PM on December 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, I forgot--you might want to keep an eye on Anthropology Now. Some enterprising and very well-respected sociocultural anthropologists decided to start up a magazine where sociocultural anthropologists can write for non-academic audiences. Not sure how long it'll last, but the edition up there now gives you an idea of the range of subjects anthropologists are thinking about these days.
posted by col_pogo at 6:58 PM on December 4, 2008

Just saw from browsing through your profile that you've lived in southern Africa.

I'll just go ahead and assume you're interested in the region...if not, hope someone else finds this interesting.

Just to mention a couple of my favorite sociocultural anthropologists working in the region: Jean and John Comaroff on religious/occult beliefs and globalization in South Africa; Harri Englund on human rights in Malawi (as well as work on religion and witchcraft); and James Ferguson on development in Lesotho, Zambia, and South Africa. Anti-politics machine, based on his dissertation fieldwork in Lesotho, is a classic anthropological critique of development.

Ferguson also has an excellent book of essays on Africa and neoliberalism that is aimed at a non-anthropological audience.

Okay, I'm done hijacking this post. Look forward to seeing others' suggestions.
posted by col_pogo at 7:17 PM on December 4, 2008

I'd only read Mead, Benedict, Malinowski, or Evans-Pritchard if you're interested in the history of anthropology...as "science" these have been largely superseded and--Mead and Benedict in particular--heavily criticized. Likewise, I wouldn't start with Marvin Harris (interesting and easy to read but often very, very wrong) or Lévi-Strauss (very, very interesting but not at all easy to read and also often wrong).

Although, I would note, these authors are heavily cited if only by contrast and, therefore, I feel approaching their work is useful. That's why I like Visions of Culture so much- Moore introduces each author with an essay about their historical period and explains why some of the nastier things they write about didn't bother them at all. . . Plus, theory is so reactive that I at least find it difficult to understand how we got from A to Z without reading all the bits in between :)

But I love anthro's dark and dirty history- and I think they way we as anthropologists write about it (or try to write around it) to be fascinating, so I know I'm a little biased in this post!
posted by Mouse Army at 5:19 AM on December 5, 2008

always love seeing threads about anthropologists; we're far underrepresented in the sociobiological/freakonomics tendencies of the web.

Among the other great suggestions here, one final book I'd say is accessible and touches on the field quite nicely is Trouillot's Silencing the Past, which, while coming out of a particular "history-of-the-present" moment in the discipline, resonates quite nicely with anthropology's main conceptual burden: how to represent "pastness" (a less loaded term, symbolically, than history), and the meaning of pastness to people as they build their lives and culture today.
posted by yonation at 6:44 AM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wonderful answers - too many great suggestions to mark best answer.

col_pogo: thanks for taking note! I've spent some time in Lesotho as well, so will be interested in reading Ferguson's work.

Thanks again everyone!
posted by Juniper Toast at 9:47 AM on December 5, 2008

Mouse Army: I think anyone seriously interested in anthropology should read the classics and know the history. Anthro's dark and dirty history is indeed entertaining, although I think anthropologists can get a bit obsessive about it. My point was that if I were nathaole and just looking to get a feel for the discipline I wouldn't start with those books.

nathaole: I'd be interested to know what you think about what he says about Lesotho; one friend of mine who lived there for a year took exception.

always love seeing threads about anthropologists; we're far underrepresented in the sociobiological/freakonomics tendencies of the web.

Amen to that, yonation.
posted by col_pogo at 4:06 PM on December 5, 2008

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